Published 1:42 PM EDT Oct 17, 2018
Redheads of the world, are you ready?
Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan's expected royal baby might – might, it must be stressed – have the same red hair and blue eyes as his/her royal daddy, joining the tiny but proud community of "gingers" longing for another red-haired hero.
Amidst all the hip-hip-hoorays about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's pregnancy announced Monday, there was another group of royal-watchers, especially in the United Kingdom, who were celebrating for a different reason.
"All of us redheads in the U.K. are wildly excited about the possibility of a red-haired baby – fingers crossed!" says Jacky Colliss Harvey, the proudly red-haired author of the 2015 tome, "Red: A History of the Redhead."
Why so hopeful? Because Harry, the most famous "ginger prince" since at least Henry VIII, is wildly popular around the world, commanding every stage because of his distinctive curly red hair and his gregarious, good-guy persona. Now there's a chance there might be another little Harry or Harriet? Hip, hip, hooray, indeed.
Yes, everyone is excited about the growing fourth generation of the Windsors, and about how this baby, expected in the spring, will bring the total of Queen Elizabeth II's gaggle of great-grandchildren to eight. Everybody loves babies.
And they're excited about this historic royal baby: the first ever half-American child with African ancestry to join the royal family, 7th in line to the throne behind Harry, 34, and born to his American biracial bride, the former Meghan Markle, 37.
Will the baby grow up to be tall like Harry (6 feet, 1 inch) or of medium height like Meghan (5 feet, 7 inches)? Will he or she be slim like Meghan or lean, muscled and Army-trained fit like Harry? Big feet? Straight nose? High cheekbones? The possible combinations are endless, as with anyone's child.
But those are not the reasons the redheads, or "gingers," as slang parlance has it in the U.K., are over the moon.
Harvey says redheads are on the rise – as a community, a distinct identity group, as a cultural force, and not just in the U.K. Another royal redhead star like Harry will only add to their self-confidence, despite their need to slather on SPF 50 every time they go outdoors.
"We're pretty excited about Harry and Meghan, full stop – we like her very, very much, we think she’s great, a wonderful breath of something completely new in the royal family," says Harvey.
Meanwhile, Harvey says, there's a redhead moment happening, becoming more visible and vocal and identifying much more as a group.
"There are huge redhead festivals in different parts of the world," she says. "We see ourselves as promoting difference as being a good thing. There was no one book that brought it all together and related the scientific and cultural history of the redhead, so I set out to do it."
To be sure, Harvey and experts on genetics caution, there's only a slim chance that ginger Harry and dark-haired Meghan will produce a redhead baby, probably less than 10 percent, according to John H. McDonald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Delaware.
"I wouldn't say it was very, very high possibility, but there’s certainly a chance," says Harvey.
In fact, says Brianne Kirkpatrick, a genetic counselor and ancestry expert for the National Society of Genetic Counselors, hair and eye colors are complex human traits involving the interaction of more than one gene. "We now know genetics is more complicated than we thought," says Kirkpatrick.
The bottom line for Harry and Meghan's baby: It's a genetic craps shoot and anything could happen.
"They could have a blond child, a child with red hair, brown hair or black – all the possibilities could happen," Kirkpatrick says.
Why does it matter? "People assign a lot of their identity to their DNA and we also want to assign other people's identity based on their DNA, even if it’s not important to them," Kirkpatrick says. "To those who live in Britain, bloodlines mean a lot and define identity. But we (counselors) say DNA is complex – and it’s not destiny."
The oversimplified explanation of the genetics of human traits such as hair color or eye color is that red hair and blue eyes are rare compared to brown hair and brown eyes, because the genes for brown dominate over red and blond and blue and green. If you have a red gene from dad and a brown gene from mum, you will likely have brown hair.
Red hair is so rare that only 2 percent of the world population today has it. In the U.K, it's 4 percent but in Scotland and Ireland it's 12 percent to 15 percent of those populations.
Thus, the only way to have red hair and blue eyes is to get two copies of genes for red hair and blue eyes, one each from each parent.
Those genes could date back many, many generations to a distant ancestor – and then suddenly turn up when a red-haired baby is born to brown-haired parents.
Harry comes from two families with multiple redheads: The Windsors, who descend from redhead Tudors (such as Henry VIII), and the Stuarts (Mary Queen of Scots) in the 16th century). His late mother's family, the Spencers, also have many redheads, so we know where he got his red hair and blue eyes.
What about Meghan? We don't know much about her ancestry other than her father is white and her mother is African American. Harvey says it depends on where her ancestors on both sides of her family were from, and whether they originated in communities with high rates of red hair.
"If her ancestors are Scottish or Irish then the red-hair gene runs much higher in those areas, and also in pockets in Russia and Switzerland," Harvey says. "Recessive (red) genes can crop up decades after they were last seen" on actual heads.
Moreover, red hair is not uncommon among African Americans, as the series of photos of redhead black Americans by photographer Michelle Marshall attests. Malcolm X had a reddish tint to his hair, which he believed he inherited from his white maternal grandfather and his Scottish ancestry.
There are peculiarities about having red hair and the pale skin that comes with it. For instance, Harvey says they are better at producing vital vitamin D from whatever sunlight is available – an advantage in routinely overcast northern climates like Britain's.
But being a redhead can carry downsides, including a higher rate of skin cancer, and in the U.K. a whiff of prejudice, says Harvey. For one thing, red hair is associated with Scotland and Ireland and their not-always-happy relationships with England, now or in the past.
But in America, the descendants of Scots and Irish immigrants consider red hair a "proud cultural inheritance," Harvey says.
"Americans I meet are always quite astonished about the prejudice (against redheads) in the U.K.," says Harvey. "It’s just how prejudice works – it gloms on to anything that seems a little bit different. More's the pity."